Family-friendly Adventures on the "Big Island" in Hawai'i
The island of Hawai’i is called the "Big Island" for a reason and it is, indeed, big. Don’t underestimate the time it takes to drive from one end to another and there is no shortcut— here you are on Hawaiian time, the highways only go around and are often backed up. And you're going to want to see a number of things on the way including hikes, beaches, carvings, historical sites and shops.
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Where to stay
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai
The Big Island’s standout resort on the quiet Kona-Kohala coast, home to an enormous spa, lauded golf course and raft of family-friendly activities.
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Hilton Waikoloa Village
On the Big Island’s Kona Coast, a sprawling beachfront playground with two distinctive towers and a mega watersports complex.
A Hawaii resort and spa located on the Kohala Coast, surrounded by lush tropical gardens, cascading waterfalls and a tranquil white sand beach and lagoon.
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Things to do
One of the charms of Hawaii is its changing geology and accompanying microclimates. When you land at the airport, you may very well think you have landed on the moon. Yet, if you drive up the volcano from the coast, you will quickly enter a lush, rainy area similar to what you will also find in Waimea (North End). However, along the coasts, the tropical beaches of which you have dreamed abound, along with opportunities for snorkeling, sailing, surfing and whale watching. A trip to the south of the island will land you smack in the middle of active volcano territory and all of the new sights, sounds and smells Pélé offers.
The other charm is the aloha attitude—the people are incredible, beautiful and friendly. Take the time to immerse yourself where you can into some of the history, the feel of the place and any events or celebrations you might be fortunate enough to be able to attend. Then plan to take some of that aloha spirit home with you. As Jack London said, "Somehow, the love of the islands, like the love of a woman, just happens. One cannot determine in advance to love a particular woman, nor can one so determine to love Hawaii.”
Kona (West Side)
Dolphin Quest at the Hilton Waikoloa: I know, I know it sounds, and is, a bit cheesy. However, it is also a memory you will have forever. Plan on being sold a hyper-touristy experience, but I also promise your kids will be wowed (you might be, too). Once you have on your safety vests, you will be able to get in the water with rescued dolphins. You may even get a dolphin kiss. It will take a full morning or afternoon, but it’s hard to beat for a moment of pure joy.
I almost hate to put this in my list as it is a secret spot that is already too popular. But if you would like a little boogie boarding or just a float in a turquoise bay with sand as fine as sugar, this is your place. Check the time at which you go as it gets very crowded. I recommend that you go early, get a parking spot and plan either to take a shade source with you or stay a short while. If you need a boogie board you can get one at most drug stores or head to Costco just north of Kona. It can also be quite hard to find Kua Bay— it is exactly one mile south of the entrance to the Four Seasons and directly across from the West Hawai’i Veterans’ Cemetery.
Volcanoes National Park: If you have a week or 10 days, a trip to Volcanoes National Park is well worth some time. Take walking shoes, water bottles, rain gear and warm jackets—all the things you would normally pack for a hike. The drive from Kona takes approximately two hours, and I would recommend taking the southern route one way and the northern the other. You might even tack on a night in Waimea on the way to or from. Plan on at least one night near the park, perhaps two if you want a full day of hiking and exploring the rim, the park and the nature centers.
Hike near the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs: This is a low altitude hike with an incredible drive through. Stop to read the information plaques along the way. The hike itself is in full sun near the coast directly on the lava. You will see all kinds of striking formations, colors and textures of lava and well-preserved petroglyphs. At Kalapana Cultural Tours, you can rent a bike to get yourselves to the lava flow (it’s a long walk, bikes are significantly easier and more fun.) It is quite a sight to see the lava at night, but remember, you will have to ride or walk back in the dark. We went in the late afternoon; the lava flow is still also stunning in the early dusk.
Hilo (East) Side
‘Akaka Falls: These are definitely worth a stop and a walk down the steep pathway through flowers. Mist from a smaller waterfall, birds swooping overhead and drooping ferns will tickle your fancy. The ‘Akaka falls themselves will make you stop and take stock, but it is the walk that makes this place special.
Botanical Gardens: While I haven’t been in years, I hear that they are as impressive as ever. If you have time to stop on your way to or from volcanoes, schedule an hour or two to wander through this delightful collection of tropical flora.
Kohala Zip Line: This course zips through the tree canopy for the most part, with a grand finale of an extremely long ride with sweeping views of the treetops. Parts of it include climbing on rope bridges (not to worry, safety is the first priority and you are always clipped in.) We took both children and a grandfather—all walked away with huge grins. If the course isn’t for you, the drive on the coast in that area is also quite pretty. Expect to spend a full 30-minutes prior getting dressed, going through instructions and another 20-30 on the drive there.
Waimea: Visit the land of rainbows (bring a jacket!) There is a market twice a week in Waimea, usually on Saturday. You'll find local food, crafts, flowers and a good dose of culture.
Shopping in Waimea
Gallery of Great Things: This is an aptly named gallery of locally sourced art. You won't find things like this easily anywhere else on the island. Think: paintings, carvings and jewelry with a Hawaiian feel. Don’t miss the drawers and trinkets just to the left as you walk in. Make sure you stand on your tippy toes and bend over to look at things or you may miss a hidden gem. And there are plenty!
Hula Moon Boutique: I have gotten some of my favorite pieces of clothing and jewelry here. They always carry stylish, but comfortable things. Peruse!
Waimea General Store: Trinkets, bauble and small things to take home.
Places to eat & drink
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai
Restaurants here are open to the public. Advance reservations are recommended.
ULU Ocean Grill: This place practically twinkles with magic (maybe it is the Ducasse-style glass balls dangling at the entrance or the sun shining on the lagoon as you cross the bridge.) Appointed with koa tables, open spaces, a wood bar that frames the view to beat all views and an extensive lanai for looking out over the water, this place tops my list for breakfast spots anywhere, ever. Enjoy the most delectable of brunches featuring loco mocos, paniolo scrambles, endless bowls of fresh fruit, lemon ricotta pancakes, miso soup to die for, jams and jellies from Hawai’ian fruits and granola. Do make an early morning visit to experience this breakfast (keep in mind that beaches are a public space, so a stroll along the water after breakfast reduces your calorie count and you just might happen upon some sea turtles basking in the sun). ULU also serves dinner. It is a high-end fine-dining experience. The price, however, just as with breakfast, includes a premium for your view, and the live music, in addition to the food.
Residents’ Beach House: Even hotel guests often don’t realize they can eat here. It is quite literally on the beach in a quiet area of the resort, across the natural ponds which Haulalai’s marine biologists on staff have maintained through hurricanes and years of environmental changes. On one side is the ocean and on the other is the golf course with a view of Hualalai Mountain. The sunsets are breathtaking, so grab a blue chair, order a Big Daddy Mai Tai (just trust me on this one), take a deep breath and realize you have arrived at the vacation spot of the century. Lunch and dinner here are always spot on, from linguine with clams to a curried fresh catch, salads and sandwiches. Enjoy the warm Ke’olu.
Beach Tree Restaurant: This resort gathering spot is a bit harder to get into as it is the main dining spot for most guests, so call to reserve early. There is a large grass area just next to the restaurant deck where kids can play while you stop at the bar for a drink in the sand. Dinner is slightly higher-end than the Beach House, and menu more limited, but food is good. Often, there is live music and hula to watch. And keep your eye out for the local lamp lighter who runs by in Hawaiian garb (you will want to keep your eyes open!)
Hilo (East) Side
Kaleo’s Bar and Grill: This is a good stop if you are taking the northern route around the island. It is about as Hawaiian as it gets: large prints, large plates and friendly staff. Don’t expect high-end fare, but for a good sandwich, ribs or a salad, it’s the place.
Tex’s Drive-In: Come here for malasadas (similar to donuts, often rolled in sugar and stuffed with various flavors of cream filling such as passion fruit.)
If you do end up in Kona for a poke-around, make your way to MI's on Ali'i Drive (across from the church, just south of the Farmers' Market) for lunch, dinner or happy hour. Their food is good, solid Italian: pasta, salads, pizza and sandwiches. Their lanai has an ocean view, and the young chef cut his chops at the Four Season's. The decor is bright with tall ceilings and open doors that make it an airy and cheery place for a gathering (don't miss the original artwork by RB Holman.)
Waimea Coffee Company: Great java and pastries on a cute, little porch.
Hawai’ian Style Café. This is the place. Go early if for breakfast, as there can often be a line out of the door (especially on weekends). The size of the servings will bowl you over (or glue you to your seat) and the creativity of the menu will make you smile. Never had spam? Well, here’s your chance. Loco Moco? Get it here. Not hungry? This isn’t the place for you. Sit next locals and enjoy authentic Hawaii. Cash only, though it will hardly put a dent in your wallet.
Need to Know
If you are looking for more family-friendly travel tips, take a look at my guide to Paris: The Ultimate Family-Friendly Trip to Paris, France and Normady: Family-Friendly Trip to Normandy, France.
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